This turned out to be a baptism of fire/ My mind was assaulted with ideas that battered at the roots of my faith. . . . The seeds of doubt were planted in my mind. —Alister McGrath
Religion has been under assault in the name of science for quite some time now.
“The world,” wrote the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold (d. 1888) under the still-new shadow of Darwinism, “cries your faith is now but a dead time’s exploded dream.” In Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel “A Farewell to Arms,” the Italian army major insists that “all thinking men are atheists,” and this same assertion is heard quite a bit today, too.
But is the assault justified?
A bright young man named Alister McGrath came of age in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Acutely aware of the violence done in the name of religion, he had no interest in it. Instead, Marxism and what he saw as religion’s incompatibility with science convinced him that faith is a backward force in human history.
“Science explained everything,” he reminisces. “It gobbled up the conceptual space once occupied by God and replaced it with the sane, cool rationalism of the scientific method. Only scientific claims are meaningful. Anything that lies outside the scope of science is simply superstition or delusion, no matter how understandable. The sciences were, for me, the bright lodestar of my intellectual and moral endeavours, the only true way to acquire reliable knowledge about reality and the order of things. Atheism was my creed, and science was its foundation.”
Having won a scholarship to Oxford University to study chemistry, McGrath prepared by immersing himself in the history and philosophy of science. Surprisingly, though, for the convinced young atheist, “This turned out to be a baptism of fire," he said. "My mind was assaulted with ideas that battered at the roots of my faith. . . . The seeds of doubt were planted in my mind.”
Ultimately, he became a Christian.
“In the end, I turned my back on one faith and embraced another. I turned away from one belief system that tried to deny it was anything of the sort, and accepted another which was quite open and honest about its status. My conversion was an act of free-thinking: I believed that I had found the best way of making sense of things. And that remains my view today.”
McGrath continued his studies at Oxford, eventually earning a doctorate in theology on top of one in molecular biophysics. He is an ordained Anglican priest and, having previously taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, is now a professor at King’s College in London, where he directs the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture. An intellectual historian and an active theologian, he has written prolifically on such topics as the Reformation and the intellectual biography of C. S. Lewis, as well as, unsurprisingly, the interface between science and religious faith — including sophisticated critiques of his fellow Oxfordian, the evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins.
“When I first read the leading works of New Atheism of 2006,” McGrath recalls in a relatively short 2011 book titled “Surprised by Meaning,” “my initial reaction was one of deep nostalgia. I found myself smiling at the bold, aggressive, and dismissive declarations of the evils of religion and the delusion of faith. It reminded me of my own youth, when I used to share both these beliefs, and the arrogance which arose from them.”
What really struck him, though, McGrath says, was the appeal of the “New Atheists” to the natural sciences for support in their crusade against religious belief, and the attempt, principally associated with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, to explain religion away on the basis of Darwinism.
The whole enterprise, McGrath argues, rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the history and nature of science and on a concept of religion that was rejected by serious scholars decades ago. (It’s rather difficult, in this context, not to think of the first line of a searing 2006 review of Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” in the “London Review of Books”: “Imagine,” wrote the prominent British literary critic Terry Eagleton, “someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the ‘Book of British Birds,’ and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”)
The relationship of religious faith and contemporary scientific thought continues, however, to be a subject of passionate debate, and will be the focus of an Interpreter Foundation conference on Mormonism and science that convenes Nov. 9, in the Utah Valley Convention Center.
Daniel Peterson edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” They speak only for themselves.